Improved building systems have become perhaps the most significant component toward achieving our 2020 goals and beyond. So many green building methods rely on best practices as their primary road to both energy efficiency and resource conservation that any significant new trends are worthy of mention here at Vision 2020.

The last big steps in building systems have come through a combination of building science research, building modeling, and to a limited extent, computer-aided construction of components such as framing. Essentially, computer-aided design (CAD) becomes the driver for computer numerical control (CNC) manufacturing equipment that, in the case of wall, floor and roof components, cuts and sometimes even assembles framing components accurately and reliably. To an extent, this eliminates the principle obstacle to better building, and that’s human error. The development of even more powerful and complex design software, namely building information management programs (BIM), promises a new level of component fabrication that begins to resemble the manufacturing processes now commonplace in the automobile industry. BIM models already support prefabrication strategies that enable digital fabrication of not only custom building components, but whole assemblies.

Yet even assemblies must be erected and connected at the jobsite, once more introducing the unpredictable human element. On the far end of the automation spectrum is the concept of machinery that can be placed on the jobsite to fully construct a building with little or no human hands involved. In essence, it’s a sort of “printer” that creates a structure straight from the plans. This may sound like Ray Bradbury, but it’s actually Behrokh Khoshnevis, a professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering, and the director of the Manufacturing Engineering Graduate Program at the University of Southern California (USC). Khoshnevis is a researcher in CAD/CAM robotics and mechatronics and involved in the development of novel Solid Free Form, or Rapid Prototyping, systems. Until now, these automated construction systems have been applied primarily to the creation of prototypes and biomedical applications (e.g., restorative dentistry, rehabilitation engineering, haptic devices for medical applications).

But now he has turned his attention to the problem of human shelter. He has constructed the first prototype of a building “printer” that delivers a finished structure, simple or complex, straight from a BIM model. His automated construction invention, Contour Crafting, was selected in 2006 as one of top 25 best inventions from more than 4,000 candidate inventions by the National Inventors Hall of Fame and the History Channel’s Modern Marvels program. To see how the printer-like tool can construct an entire structure and learn how Khoshnevis sees it solving many of the construction industry’s most vexing problems, view this brief TEDx talk.